Two special pearl commissions

Most of the pearl pieces we make on a daily basis are to us somewhat routine. We know the most popular sizes, lengths and styles and these account for probably 95% of what we ship on a weekly basis. But those that really know us also know that we love to create special pieces. Lately these have been pieces created from unique pearls Hisano and I find while pearl hunting in Asia, but often they are pieces that are a new take on the traditional.

This week we received two such commissions. The first was for a special Tahitian pearl strand and the second was for a very particular style of white South Sea.

This Tahitian strand is special. The request was 36 inches, AAA quality, straight-sized without graduation, exotic colors and matched across as closely as possible – the latter being the most difficult part of all, and one we called upon friends in Tahiti for a bit of assistance. Matching exotic colors across is the near equivalent of 36 inches of paired, exotic Tahitians.

36 inches of exotic Tahitian pearls

The result is one dramatic strand of incredibly exotic Tahitian pearls.  These colors are the reason I love working with Tahitians.

An exotic Tahitian pearl rope

36 inches of exotic, 11-12 mm Tahitian pearls

The second special strand is one that I handled personally this week. A customer in Australia asked our assistance in creating a special white South Sea strand for his 25th anniversary. He wanted the piece to be very special, so we decided to create a strand out of our loose pearl inventory – the pearls we set aside for rings, earrings and pendants. As I blogged about last year, this is the way to create the perfect strand.

But simply matching a South Sea strand out of loose grade pearls is not something terribly out of the ordinary for us. What makes this strand so different is the graduation.

We were discussing possible graduations (going minimum or dramatic) and I mentioned how dramatic the graduation was in the necklace featured in The Dark Man Rises. I remembered Ashley of Pure Pearls recently blogged about one, combining freshwater pearls with white South Sea. We decided to give it a shot – using only white South Sea pearls.

The resulting strand is a perfect 8.5 to 13.1 mm strand of top-grade selected pearls. We finished the necklace with a gold clasp engraved with a special, 25th anniversary message and it’s now headed over the pond tonight.

graduated white South Sea strand

A perfect strand of graduated white South Sea pearls

Soufflé Pearls: Some things I bet you didn’t know

One of the most popular types of pearl that we’ve been bringing in over the past year have been those lightweight, hollowed out pearls popularly known as soufflé. The name, coined by friend and fellow pearl expert Jack Lynch of Sea Hunt Pearls, conjures up the image of the namesake puffy French desert.

Colorful Souffle Pearls

But what is a soufflé pearl? Is it the product of brilliant pearl farmer innovation or something else?

The name soufflé comes from the French verb souffler, which in English translates to blow or to inflate. Although this may not have factored in to the coining of the term, it’s actually even more accurate than most could have ever guessed.

Soufflé pearls are grown by inserting a substance into an existing pearl sac that looks much like some sort of earthen material – it sort of looks like mud. When the pearls are harvested, they are drilled, cleaned and voilà – a lightweight, hollow pearl.

two-toned souffle pearls

A few two-toned pearls

But guess what? That was not the original intention.

The earthen material that is inserted into the existing pearl sac – a nacre-producing pouch inside a freshwater mussel from which a pearl was already harvested – is inserted to “souffler” the pearl sac. The material, which starts out dry, soaks up the surrounding moisture and begins to expand. As the material expands, the pearl sac also expands. The pearl sac continues to deposit nacre over this now-much-larger nucleus – the birth of a soufflé pearl.

giant souffle pearls

Soufflé pearls tend to be grow quite large

After harvesting this pearl, the farmer now has a mussel with a pearl sac much larger than usual. In this pearl sac he is then able to place a large bead – the pearl sac must be large enough to envelope the entire bead – and grow a large, bead-nucleated pearl. Those large, bead-nucleated pearls go by names such as giant fireballs, ripples, Ming Pearls and Edisons.

In China, pearls are sold by weight, so some of the earliest soufflé pearls were harvested as quickly as possible to mostly be discarded, although some have made the way into the uber-low-end market (check out this disturbing image). When the pearls were cleaned out, they lost the value. Or so they thought! The soufflé pearls that were left in the shells long enough to attain a thick coating of nacre exhibit some of the strongest, most iridescent colors we’ve ever seen in freshwater pearls and now command a premium in the wholesale trade.

colorful souffle pearls

More colorful soufflé pearls

One of the most common questions I hear about soufflé pearls is whether or not they are durable – they are hollow so some worry that if the pearls are dropped, they might break. To answer that question, we cut a large, 34 mm soufflé pearl in half this week. The nacre thickness (pictured below) is more than 2 mm in the thinnest areas and more than 4 mm in the thickest – thicker than the nacre found on almost any beaded pearl produced today. It would take one part hammer and two parts intention to smash one of these beauties.

33 mm souffle pearl sawn in half

A giant, 34 mm soufflé pearl sawn in half

Hong Kong International Diamond, Gem and Pearl Show 2014

The large pearl and gem show put together by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council is just around the corner once again, this time with a twist! This year the council is introducing a new concept called “Two Shows Two Venues.” The first show (the one that interests us) will be held at the Asia World-Expo and will feature loose gems and pearls. The second show features finished jewelry and will be held at the main exhibition center. The shows combined expect to attract more than 40,000 visitors from nearly 50 countries.

Hisano and I will  be leaving for Hong Kong next week and Lynsey from Customer Support will be joining us – it’s her first trip to Asia and she’s pretty excited. Our pearl buying team is growing!

As always, if there are any special requests from the show, please feel free to email me or anyone on the team. We would be happy to search for that special pearl or strand.

Hisano Shepherd matching pearls

Pearl Size: Volume vs Diameter

We’re often asked for advice when customers are trying to determine what size of pearl is best suited for them. The question is typically whether or not it is worth it to go up a size or two in millimeters. Is the difference really that noticeable?

The image below is of a 6 mm akoya pearl next to a 12 mm South Sea pearl. The millimeter size is exactly double, but it’s easy to see that the true difference in size is much greater.

6 mm akoya pearl next to 12 mm South Sea pearl

As a rule of thumb, I’ve always told customers that a 2 mm incremental increase in millimeter size would approximately double the overall size of the pearl. On the surface this tends to be confusing. How can an 8 mm pearl be twice the size of a 6 mm pearl?

Pearl Dreams, a pearl enthusiast from Pearl-Guide.com’s community forum produced a brilliant explanation that I plan to incorporate into our team training. It isn’t so much the millimeter size that determines the true size of a pearl. Given that pearls are three-dimensional objects, the volume is what truly determines the size.

By determining the volume of perfectly round pearls (V = ⁴⁄₃πr³) in 1 mm pearl increments, Pearl Dreams was able to show that a small increase in pearl mm size can have a large impact on the true size of a pearl.

12 mm pearl: 904 cubic mm (30% larger than 11mm and 73% larger than 10mm; over 3 times as large as 8mm)
11 mm pearl: 697 cubic mm (33% larger than 10mm)
10 mm pearl: 523 cubic mm (37% larger than 9mm, 95% larger than 8mm)
9 mm pearl: 382 cubic mm (43% larger than 8mm; 2 times as large as 7mm pearls)
8 mm pearl: 268 cubic mm (49% larger than 7mm)
7 mm pearl: 180 cubic mm (59% larger than 6mm)
6 mm pearl: 113 cubic mm

Pearl Dreams went on to describe a formula to determine the volume for a prolate ellipsoid, which can be related to oval pearls.

This is likely the best explanation I’ve ever seen on this subject.

Nontraditional Tahitian pearl pairing that works

Baroque Tahitian pearls are among my favorites. The best tend to have colors and combinations of colors within individual pearls that are nearly impossible to achieve with traditional rounds. The uniqueness of each pearl means that a full strand can never be perfectly duplicated (hence the need for individual photographs) and pairs are very difficult to make.

A good customer reached out to me earlier in the month and asked me to find a pair of Tahitians on the smaller side that had amazing colors. While I could have selected something extra special from the rounds, my first thought was to suggest a pair of drops or baroques. We had just finished separating a large lot of Tahitian pearls for the holiday season and I had set a few special lots aside.

Baroque Tahitian pearls with intense colors

My suggestion of using colorful baroque pearls was well-received but created a dilemma; she only wore stud earrings and drops and circled pearls are traditionally set onto dangle settings. We decided to try something more nontraditional and find pairs that would work set as studs.

An intense blue-green pair and a super-peacock pair.

Blue Green and Super Peacock Tahitian pearl baroque pairs

A pair with color so intense, the oil-slick effect is visible on the pearls

Oil slick peacock colors on a Tahitian pearl

I ended up matching a couple of pairs of drops too, and while the colors were striking, I had to recommend going with one of the less symmetrical pairs.

Given that her two favorite colors are blue and green she opted for the first pair. I love the result.

Baroque Tahitian pearls set as traditional stud earrings